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Will Congress Finally Pass an Energy Bill?

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Will Congress Finally Pass an Energy Bill?

Painfully high fuel costs push Congress into action at last.

By Daniel Stone

The House Democratic leadership has shifted over the past couple months on the issue of offshore drilling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left the issue untouched for much of the summer, even telling fellow Democrats that, during the congressional recess in August, they could blame her when confronted by frustrated constituents about high fuel costs. Now, with just two weeks left in the legislative session and renewed pressure from colleagues across the aisle, House Democrats are expected this week to introduce and debate a new energy bill. Pelosi and other leaders have called it a compromise, promising that it will include provisions for limited drilling no less than 50 miles offshore as well as incentives for alternative-energy development.

Republicans have criticized the measure even before seeing it, suspecting that it won't go far enough and that all stops should be pulled out--including drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have also taken issue with the term "compromise." "We've been shut out of the process completely," says one GOP aide.

Imposing a deadline on the entire debate is the federal ban on offshore drilling, which has been in place for 40 years. Failing to renew or modify the ban before the end of the month would cause all drilling to become legal within three miles of all shoreline, a prospect seen as extreme by many lawmakers in both parties. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about the Democratic shift on drilling and the motivation to quickly pass the measure. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What will this bill include?

Diana DeGette: We've been trying to refocus our energy policy more toward renewables and conservation and weaning ourselves away from foreign oil. Until the summer of 2007, all of our energy bills were backward-looking, regressive bills that rewarded traditional oil and gas companies with tax credits and other incentives, rather than focusing on energy independence. The bill we're now trying to put together will give us some incentive for drilling, which will solve some of the medium-term needs. It will have some drilling, but it'll really have an incentive on renewable energy and conservation. It will really have the renewable energy standards that we tried to pass last year.

What does that mean for things like nuclear power, coal and natural gas?
Those issues are still under discussion.

This debate is a referendum on offshore drilling. The House Democratic leadership is calling it a compromise.

It is a compromise. It allows offshore drilling if the states opt in. From my perspective, I thought that while we develop renewable energy and reliance on alternative sources, we need to have some kind of domestic supply. So I think this a good balanced policy and something we should have come up with to begin with.

Just a few months ago, the Democratic leadership was against all drilling, though has now warmed up to the idea. Why the change?

I think it's an honest attempt to come up with a comprehensive energy policy, which is frankly past due. Before the August recess, [the Republicans] were talking about only drilling. "Drill here, drill now" was their mantra. Now they're talking about a comprehensive policy, too. So I think we should be able to have a compromise.

Let me ask you about renewables. Solar and wind producers are concerned about the production and income tax credits, which will expire in December. Will this bill renew those?

Yes, absolutely. That's one of the key goals of the bill. Those are the provisions that we passed in the summer of 2007. I just saw a newspaper article that big-box stores, like Wal-Mart, are rushing to put solar panels on their roof before the end of the year. Those are exactly the incentives that we need and that were lacking for so long in our energy policy.

There's obviously disagreements with Republicans. Are the Democrats unified on this?

We're still trying to work these issues out among our own caucus. Don't forget, we still have a very diverse caucus--everyone from the oil-patch Democrats in Texas to the farmers who like the idea of bio-fuels to many of the proponents of renewable energy. It's a package we have to craft very carefully to reflect a comprehensive energy policy, but also to make sure our caucus will get behind it.

House Republicans delivered a fairly substantial rebuke of what one lawmaker called "Democratic foot-dragging on energy" before, and during, the August recess. Was that a motivator?

I don't think the Republicans' antics were a motivator. That's the same party that had moved to adjourn 13 times in the month of July before they pulled this stunt by refusing to leave. I think what was the motivator was that members of Congress in both parties went home over the August recess and heard their constituents really talking in pain about the high gas prices they were paying.

What's the likelihood this issue will be left unresolved before the end of the congressional session?

This will be resolved before we go home.

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